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Having free access to birth control methods is a question of health care and not about morality. Women need reproductive and birth control rights in India.
The true hallmark of one’s empowerment stems from one’s unhindered right over one’s body, mind and soul. Be it a man, woman, binary or non-binary transgender or an a-gender person, this right remains sublime and inherent in the individual as a human, regardless of gender. However, traditional notions of masculinity presuppose that the male dominates, while the female is subjugated, and all other genders are anomalies. This structural violence plays out in nearly every domain.
Including access to emergency contraception.
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By and large, it is a heavily stigmatised domain, so much so if a woman chooses to access contraceptives, it tends to pave room for tremendous judgment in some social setups. In some others, the access to contraceptives is taken away altogether, as though to suggest that a woman’s body remains within the domain of a male legislator’s control to wield his decision-making power. In Chennai, for instance, access to emergency contraceptive pills is banned – primarily on ‘moral grounds’.
While the ‘Directorate of Drugs Control’ suggests that it is a ‘Schedule H drug’, to be sold only on the production of a prescription; on ground, medical stores turn their customers away saying they don’t have the drug. The double standard comes to light when you look at strips of medication such as Combiflam (a run off the mill regular pain killer) being sold over the counter, although they also have the very same ‘Schedule H Drug’ caveat. Consequently, many women are forced to rely on friends outside the state to help access the drug, paying exorbitantly to have it couriered within the stipulated 72 hours that it should be ingested within.
The flagrant disregard of a woman’s body and her agency over herself is suggestive of a heavily patriarchal mindset that seeks refuge under the notion of ‘morality’. When an unmarried woman seeks out to access emergency contraception, she immediately places herself squarely in an arena of judgment and discriminative treatment. She is automatically disregarded and disrespected for no fault of hers – although the ascribed basis is that her choice to have pre-marital sex automatically makes her ‘characterless’.
At the very base of the right to access emergency contraception, is the notion of feminism and equality. The true essence of human rights is that one has a right to make a choice – and an informed choice, no less. A woman who chooses to have premarital sex or is in need of emergency birth control is not immoral – but rather, a woman who makes the choices she actively believes in and is liberated enough to do so. Why brand her a scion of all things anti-feminist, when she is simply doing something of her own volition, something no one compels her to do, something she does because she wants to?
The trouble creeps in when restraints like these are imposed. Imposed veiling, imposed rituals, imposed obligations, imposed rules that a woman must be subservient to a man. For when there is an imposition, there is an encroachment of individuality. When there is an encroachment of individuality, there is an erosion of empowerment. When there is an erosion of empowerment, there is an absolute disregard for identity. And when identity is disregarded, as a natural corollary, dominance prevails.
Why are we so staunch in our goals of defining a gendered approach to healthcare, and why are we so hung up on purported ideas of morality? Instead of making this around a morality argument, why don’t we make it a question of healthcare, access to healthcare and offering the resources that one is entitled to, seeing it as a need?
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This is a brilliant post. Every single point you make is valid and coherent, on the co-relation between access to birth control and the empowerment of women in India. Contraception is quite simply a woman’s right, as she largely bears the burden of a pregnancy (whether wanted or not) whether before or after marriage. Therefore it is imperative that she (more certainly) be the decision maker regarding the use of contraception and has easy access to it. Quite clearly even more so, in the context of pre-marital sex and an unwanted pregnancy. While unmarried and married men in India enjoy better access to contraception with less fear of social stigma and moral policing, they surprisingly show a distinct lack of interest or intent to actually use them for various reasons both trivial and cultural. This then directly puts the onus of safe sex without the risk of infection or an unwanted pregnancy, squarely on the woman. Statistics reveal that Indian men largely stay off contraception (even after marriage) despite having easy access to them. Women sterilisations (most often after marriage and birth of a couple or more children) account for close to 75% of all sterilisations in India, indicating that women are both- willing and also see the need to be more conscious and responsible for family planning. In the light of these statistics on the one hand men must be persuaded to be more responsible in having safe sex and using modern contraceptive methods like the condom to prevent unwanted pregnancies, but more importantly, women must not be denied easy availability and access to modern contraceptive methods for better health and safety against pregnancies. Like you rightly point out, this is not so much a matter of morality as it is of access to healthcare and perhaps even family planning methods.
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